“Do I have to give up animal proteins if I want to eat more plant-based protein?” This is probably the most common question I receive from my clients as a plant-based dietitian. Most of us know the benefits of eating more plant foods, like fruits and vegetables, but we also don’t want to necessarily give up our favorite foods that fall within the animal protein group.
The term “plant-based” actually has a pretty loose definition. A plant-based approach can mean eating a diet made up of 100% plant foods. It can also mean being more intentional about incorporating more plant-based protein while still saving some space for dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, and fish. And plant-based can be flexible depending on your food preferences, values, and health goals.
Protein is often the first concern when someone starts to eat a more plant-based diet. Rightfully so, protein is a very important macronutrient with thousands of responsibilities in the body. But, the two other macronutrients – carbohydrates and fat – are just as important as protein. If you’ve been curious as to how to incorporate more plant-based proteins into your diet without actually giving up animal protein (dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, and fish), I have ten simple meal ideas to start today.
1. Add white beans, chickpeas, or green peas to a fruit smoothie
Beans and peas are considered legumes. Legumes are the most powerful source of plant-based protein. The protein content of legumes ranges from about 10 to 20 grams per serving (give or take depending on the specific legume). Fully plant-based eaters are encouraged to eat at least 3 servings of legumes per day to help meet protein requirements. Beans and peas easily blend into a variety of flavorful smoothies without changing the flavor. Start with your typical fruit smoothie and add canned white beans, canned chickpeas, or frozen green peas. Chickpeas blend well into peanut butter banana smoothies. White beans bulk up a powerful mixed berry smoothie. Green peas are an easy addition to green smoothies using leafy greens and Granny Smith apples.
2. Add lentils alongside ground meat in a red pasta sauce
Lentils are another type of protein-rich legume. These small, round pulses come in a variety of colors such as red, brown, green, and black. When making a red pasta sauce with ground meat, try reducing the quantity of ground meat by half and replace that quantity with cooked lentils. The lentils have a ground meat-like texture allowing them to easily blend into a meaty red sauce, like a Ragu or Bolognese sauce. Dry lentils can be cooked right into the pasta sauce using extra liquid or add pre-cooked lentils from a can or carton.
3. Add black or pinto beans to ground meat taco filling
Beans are a staple in Mexican, Tex-Mex and many Latin American cuisines. Keeping a variety of different canned beans in the pantry ensures you always have a convenient plant-based protein source to add to your Taco Tuesday meals. Next time you make a taco filling using ground meat, reduce the meat quantity and supplement with black or pinto beans (or both!). Just like lentils, beans have a similar texture to ground meat when mixed together. Season the beans the same way you season the ground meat for a satisfying flavor.
4. Use chickpea-based pasta noodles when making soups and pasta dishes
Dry pasta is a must-have staple for plant-based pantries. Pasta is a quick-cooking carbohydrate that allows for a variety of different flavored sauces. Some chickpea pasta brands have about 15 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber per two ounce serving. Wowza for a noodle! Pasta sauce is also a simple base to incorporate chopped, shredded, or pureed vegetables for extra nutrition.
While pasta can get a bad reputation for being “high in carbohydrates”, those carbohydrates are necessary for brain and muscle function. Not to mention carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy. The food industry is always coming up with new products in the name of “health”. While I’m not always on board with these product missions, I’m happy to report that chickpea pasta noodles are actually a great way to boost protein in a meal as simple as pasta and sauce. And you still get the necessary carbohydrates, but with some help from chickpea’s protein and fiber. You can also try dry pasta made from black beans, red lentils, and edamame.
5. Sprinkle hemp hearts or chia seeds into egg dishes
Nuts and seeds are its own food group on the Vegan for Life Food Guide. This is because nuts and seeds are packed with protein, unsaturated fats, and a concentrated amount of minerals. Hemp hearts and chia seeds have an added bonus of containing essential omega-3 fatty acids, too. Hemp hearts have almost 10 grams of protein per 3 tablespoons. Chia seeds hold above 7-10 grams of protein per 3 tablespoons. These tiny seeds have minimal flavor and texture which helps them go unnoticed when added to egg dishes (and most other dishes). Sprinkle these seeds into beaten eggs when making scrambled eggs, an omelet, quiche, and even French toast.
6. Add a cashew cream sauce to make sauces creamy
Let’s keep the nuttiness going! Cashews pack 5 grams of protein per one ounce. They have a softer texture compared to other nuts that make it easy to blend them into sauces and creams. Use a cashew cream sauce when looking for a heavy cream or dairy alternative.
Soak raw cashews in boiling hot water for at least 5 minutes to get the softest texture. Discard the water after soaking, then add the cashews to fresh water. Blend until the liquid looks like milk. You can also add nutritional yeast or Parmesan cheese, fresh garlic, and dried seasonings to the mixture. This cashew cream sauce can turn a marinara sauce into a pink sauce. It works well as the base to a dairy-free Alfredo sauce. I love using it to make a cheese sauce for vegan macaroni and cheese.
7. Add ground walnuts to ground beef burgers
Third time’s a charm with the nutty protein options. Walnuts are another great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3’s are necessary for optimal brain, heart, and eye health and have a huge impact on our mood. Lightly toasting and roughly grinding up walnuts adds a meaty texture to any ground meat dish. These crumbled walnuts work really well paired with ground beef in burger patties. The nuttiness softens when the patty is cooked giving the walnuts a similar texture to ground beef while adding a slightly earthy flavor.
8. Add crumbled tofu to shredded chicken for wraps, tacos, burritos, and enchiladas
If you love Taco Tuesday, you’ll also love changing up your taco routine to incorporate crumbled tofu. Tofu is made from soybeans, another type of legume extremely rich in plant-protein. A half cup of firm tofu has about 22 grams of protein. The benefit of soy-based foods is that they contain all nine essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks to all the proteins in our body, but the nine essential amino acids must be consumed from food.
Tofu acts as a sponge when cooking. It soaks up whatever flavor you add to it and can have a variety of different textures. Choose a firm or extra-firm tofu to save on prep time. Be sure to press the tofu of excess water before cooking. Use your hands to roughly crumble the tofu block into “ground” pieces that mimic the size of shredded chicken (or ground meat). Another option is to shred the tofu using a vegetable or cheese grater. Season the tofu really well with extra dried seasonings and extra sauce for optimal flavor. Saute the tofu separately from cooking the chicken until the tofu pieces have golden brown edges. Toss the tofu and shredded chicken together as you continue the cooking process for making tacos, burritos, or enchiladas.
9. Use oat flour when making waffles and pancakes
Oats are considered a whole grain with almost 11 grams of protein in 1 cup of rolled oats. This grain can easily be blended into a coarse or fine flour to use in many baked goods. Use store-bought or homemade oat flour to make a fun breakfast of waffles or pancakes with added protein. These traditional breakfast bites typically use a refined white flour which provides a fluffy, cake-like texture. Oat flour will boost the protein of your breakfast, but don’t expect the same fluffiness as before, if you give this a try. Oats are more dense which will give pancake and waffle batter more substance. This is good news, though! The added protein and fiber from oats increases satiety and helps you stay fuller for longer.
10. Use quinoa as the base to stir fries
Quinoa is technically a seed, but is used like a whole grain for culinary purposes. While also being a carbohydrate source, one cup of cooked quinoa has about 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber. Most stir fry recipes use rice or rice noodles as the base to adding protein and a mixture of vegetables. Swapping in quinoa as the foundation to a stir-fry can add a helpful dose of plant protein which allows you to reduce the overall amount of animal protein you planned to use.
Quinoa cooks similarly to rice either simmered on the stove or in a pressure cooker using less liquid. Be sure to rinse the quinoa in a mesh strainer before cooking to eliminate the bitter-tasting outer coating. You can also find pre-cooked quinoa in microwavable pouches in the pantry and freezer sections of most grocery stores for added convenience.
I wish we could keep this list of ideas going, but it’s important to start with small changes to your diet. Consistently making small changes in the kitchen leads to big results. If you’re ready to feel the positive results of eating a mostly or fully plant-based diet, let’s chat about how I can support you on your journey. I offer one-on-one nutrition coaching for a high-level, individualized approach. My group coaching program, Plant Based Food Freedom, is also a great support group that includes connection with other plant-based eaters.